Lifeguards can return to Hunting Island State Park beaches, state officials have decided, but it's unclear how much they will cost and who will pay.
The state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism might ask Beaufort County to pay half the cost, state parks director Phil Gaines said Wednesday. Gaines did not have an estimate for having lifeguards at one of the state's most-visited parks.
Russell Patterson, a Beaufort native who has pushed to get lifeguards back at Hunting Island, estimates it would cost $100,000 to $130,000 the first year for nine lifeguards and a supervisor. The cost would decline in subsequent years, he said.
"I'm very encouraged that the PRT is willing to move forward with the plan," Patterson said. "What is disappointing is they won't fund all of it and they're looking for the county residents to pay for part of it."
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Paul Sommerville, the Beaufort County Council member for District 2, which includes Hunting Island, said he's never considered subsidizing the state park. However, as a former lifeguard there, he understands the dangers and would be willing to participate in the discussion.
"I think it's important enough that any option should be on the table," he said Wednesday.
Gaines said he is confident an agreement eventually will be reached.
"All parties are working together to the end goal of getting lifeguards at Hunting Island," he said.
Gaines said money could come from the department's budget, but getting a lifeguard program off the ground this year could be difficult because it's the middle of a fiscal year and the budget is influenced by the parks system's revenue.
The Beaufort County Legislative Delegation will continue to discuss how lifeguards might be funded, Patterson said Wednesday after getting an update from Gaines and PRT director Duane Parrish. State Reps. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, and Kenneth Hodges, D-Green Pond; and state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, also attended the meeting.
Erickson said she's encouraged by PRT's willingness to work on the issue.
Hunting Island has not had lifeguards since 1998, in part because it was becoming difficult to find qualified people to work at a remote park, state officials have said.
Patterson, whose family has owned a cabin on Hunting Island for about 30 years, began crusading for the lifeguards' return after three people drowned off the park's north beach last July. Six people have drowned in the past four years at the park, Patterson said.
Patterson proposed to PRT in January that three lifeguards be stationed along the beach from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
A decision should be made within the next month if lifeguards are to return this year, Gaines said. Once the weather warms, employers will begin searching for summer employees, which could make it difficult for Hunting Island to find lifeguards, he said.
In the meantime, the state will bring a new, five-flag system to all of its parks that offer swimming. Green, yellow and red flags will indicate low, medium and high hazards, respectively. A second red flag would be added to the high-hazard flag when the water is closed to the public. A purple flag would indicate the presence of dangerous marine life.